Themes and Meanings
“Danny Deever” captures the irony, comradeship, and demands of military life in a single ceremony. Those who serve in the military are expected to endure hardship, face death, obey orders, and do all these things willingly even though they may not have the experience to understand what is being asked of them.
Danny is the focus of the poem, but the stories Kipling tells are of the three other characters. In civilian society, the state carries out the trials, sentencing, and punishment of those who do wrong. In the military, all those functions are performed by the same organization of which the accused is a member. In Kipling’s time, life in a regiment in India was arduous, but for many soldiers the army was the closest thing to a family they had ever known. The unit was hierarchical, to be sure, even castelike, but the business of fighting and protecting the empire was for many an adventure. Men relied upon one another, and on their shared experience, to enjoy the few things they could and to survive in battle.
Imagine then, the shock of finding a murderer in the midst of the regiment—and then realizing the irony that those who have put others to death must now do the same thing to a soldier who was once a friend. Hanging Danny is just as much a requirement, a mission, as fighting in battle, and it must be carried out in the same professional manner. From the inexperience, fear, and insecurity of Files, to the experienced and wiser Colour-Sergeant, to the observer, the chain of thematic effect is built. The conversationalists are the foundation, but the house of the army is built by those who know what the observer knows.
He knows that the ceremony begins with the Dead March, that all who commit crimes of the magnitude of murder will, eventually, see their own coffin. Yet he also knows that the man who made himself “nine ‘undred of ‘is county an’ the Regiment’s disgrace” must still somehow be considered a comrade and that the others must appreciate his fight for life and recognize the passing of his soul. Knowing all that, the observer thinks only that the soldiers will want beer to calm them, not sympathy or an explanation of the ways of the world and the army. They must learn those things for themselves. The final irony is certainly that of Files-on-Parade, for he, the youngest, the one who is too young to have seen battle, sees his first death not on the field but in his own camp.